Understanding abandonment – how thoughtful ‘checkout’ design pays dividends

I’ve been doing a lot of my shopping online recently and it has gotten me thinking about the opportunities for designing ecommerce systems that we often don’t bother spending time on. We just plug in ‘off the shelf’ solutions and this means that all too often we’re not thinking about ways that we can design the shopping experience so that it better supports the way that people actually want to shop online.

It seems from many online shopping experiences that there is an assumption that the online shopping experience has just a few simple steps:

  1. locate the product you want to purchase
  2. select that product (put it in the basket)
  3. pay for the product and arrange delivery

Although, for some people some of the time, the process is this simple, very often there are much more complex pathways that people take when shopping – both online and offline. Unfortunately, very often the design of online systems doesn’t support this additional complexity. Very often just a few small changes would make a great difference.

Here are just a few examples I’ve come across lately.

Scenario: I’m in the market, but I’m not quite ready to buy.
Design requirement: Save shopping basket

There are many reasons why people don’t quite complete a transaction, but one that I find is really very common is this one… I’m just not quite ready to buy yet. It could be that it’s a large transaction and I need to be completely certain that I want to buy it, it could be that I’m comparing your product or price or service with your competitors, but quite often I’ll do the first and second stages of the shopping process – locating products and putting them in the trolley – but not be quite ready to give you my payment details.

It is amazing how many e-commerce systems ‘forget’ all the shopping I’ve done – some apparently deliberately, with time out error messages to boot. This means that, when I come back with my credit card out and ready to shop, I have to start all over again – finding the products and putting them back into the basket. Depending on the size of your product range and the state of your information architecture, this can sometimes be a particularly daunting task – daunting enough to perhaps result in abandonment.
Where is the value to anyone in ‘forgetting’ what’s in my basket? Who benefits from this? Certainly not your customer who has to go to extra effort when they return to make their purchase, and not the business either, who will almost certainly be losing revenue as a result of this design decision.

Amazon (predictably) are a great example of how not to forget what’s gone in the basket – their ‘buy later’ functionality means that I can even choose to not buy something that is in the basket and *still* not have it deleted or forgotten. Amazon is an excellent example of how to manage this ‘remembering’ – but many small ecommerce sites have similar functionality – you don’t have to be Amazon to be able to do this.

It will take a little more technical effort and design work to manage this ‘saving’ of the basket but it should definitely be the default for all e-commerce systems.

Scenario: I’m in the market, but I’m not quite motivated to buy.
Design requirement: Follow up and provide incentive

I also call this one ‘The Almost Impulse Buy’ – again, the customer goes almost all the way through the purchasing process but pulls out just as it comes time to commit with their wallet. There are a lot of reasons why people don’t quite go through with the purchase, but three surprisingly common ones are:

  1. they simply forget! – surprisingly, buying your products is not the only and most important thing that your customer is dealing with. Other more important stuff comes up, they get distracted – and they quite simply forget that they were ever just about to hand over some of their hard earned cash to you. They move on and don’t make it back.
  2. they need just a little more reason to buy – it could be that they don’t really *need* your product, or that they don’t really need to buy it from you, or that they feel as though they should do a little more research or wait a little time before buying – there is not quite enough motivation for them to complete the purchase at that time.
  3. something you’re doing sucks – it could be that something is broken, a question is not answered, or something about your product or service just doesn’t quite match your customers needs… this is unresolved and, as a result, so is this transaction.

Each of these ‘problems’ has a very similar solution – get in touch! Drop me an email, tell me you’ve noticed that I didn’t quite complete my purchase, ask me if something was wrong, give me an alternative method to purchase (a return email, a phone number) or a way to tell you what was wrong, give me an incentive to complete the purchase now.

Recently I almost purchased a hamper online at Fortnum & Mason – about 24hours after I *didn’t* complete the transaction I received an email from them letting me know that they’d noticed, asking me if there was a problem and telling me that if I *did* complete the purchase they’d put me in a draw to win an enormous hamper for free. Nice work.

Other smaller sites have sent me emails that seem to me to be human generated – one even had a little note telling me that something I had almost purchased was now available as a special deal. Perhaps they’re hand done, perhaps they’re automated, the end result is a little warm fuzzy for the customer – you noticed that they didn’t go through with the purchase and you care enough to find out why and to try to win their business. For the small amount of effort that this would require, it wouldn’t take very many conversions to make this time and money well spent.

Scenario: I’m just researching but information I need is buried in your purchasing process
Design requirement: Make desired information more easily accessible to your customers outside of the purchasing process.

Sometimes abandonment isn’t actually abandonment… sometimes it’s just research that can’t be done any other way. Understanding delivery charges and timeframes is an example you’ve probably come across before – you can’t find out about what delivery options are available without going through the process of purchasing, even though you’re not at all committed to that purchase. I once had a client who had a geographically restricted service, but the only way you could find out if that service was available to you was to commence the purchase transaction where step three was ‘put in your postcode to find out if we can provide service in your location’. These things sound pretty dumb and obvious, but you run into them all the time. Meanwhile, back at corporate HQ, people are wondering why shopping baskets are being abandoned at step three…

As well as making it easier for your customers, providing this information outside of the transactional process also helps you get more accurate numbers on the effectiveness of your design – those customers who are just going through the motions to get the information shouldn’t be counted as abandonments at all – in many cases, this results in undue resources being spent on redesigning step three, when, in fact, the real problems that cause committed customers to drop out are somewhere else entirely.

So – just a few of my favourite ways that you could potentially make some small changes and reap almost immediate benefits for your e-commerce business. I’d be interested to hear of any other basket/checkout related bugbears you have and how they should be addressed by user experience designers.

It’s not easy being an edge-case

An important part of doing good design work is to decide what exactly it is you are designing and who exactly you are designing for – after all, you can’t be all things to all people. A side-effect of this good practice is the creation of edge-cases – people who might want to use your design, but who have requirements that you have not particularly designed for. Ideally you want to make it *possible* for these people to achieve their goals, but it is not the focus of your design work. As such, it may be a little trickier for them than it is for your defined target audience(s).

Interestingly, I’ve found that by moving countries but not changing my email address I’ve become an edge-case for some applications and websites that I used to use quite frequently and that you probably use now too.

iTunes, for example, wants me to use the UK iTunes store now rather than the Australian store. This is fair enough and, I’m sure, is all to do with licensing. Thing is, they also want me to register with the UK store, but when I go to register, they pick up the email address I’m using and tell me that my email address has already been registered. There doesn’t seem to be any way that I can update my profile to ‘move’ myself from Australia to the UK – the only option that iTunes gives me is to use the Australian iTunes store… which sounds well and good except I can’t use my UK credit card at the Australian store, and I’ve ditched all my Australian cards. The end result is that, unless I want to give iTunes a different email address and register with the UK store using that address, I can’t buy tunes from Apple. Annoying.

Similarly, PayPal deals very inelegantly with members who move countries. Again, there is not way that you can update your profile from one country to another. Rather, you have to close your old account and open a new one. You can’t transfer funds from the old account the new account either – you have to withdraw the funds, in my case to an Australian bank account (which, you guessed it, I’ve already closed).

So, what’s the point? Am I going to moan and complain because iTunes and PayPal have either not thought or not cared to create a better experience for people who move countries and don’t change their email address? Well, no. I’m sure that the number of people who are in my situation is relatively small, and as such, the effort required to improve the experience is better spent looking after the majority of their target audience.

This is one of the first times, though, that I’ve found myself as an ‘edge-case’ for two services that I would happily choose to use on a regular basis, and it is a rather unsettling experience. At this point, my desire to use their services is not outweighed by the effort required to make this possible. I’m having to find other places and ways to spend my money and, although I theoretically understand why they’re treating me so badly, the poor experience has removed any warm fuzzy feelings I had for either service.

What’s the moral to the story? I think, perhaps, that it’s not to try to eliminate edge-cases – all you achieve by doing that is to give everyone a very mediocre experience. Perhaps, though, be aware of instances where people who were previously smack in the middle of your target audience become edge-cases and try to make their edge-case experience not utterly impossible. Recognise that there are two types of edge-case audiences – edge-cases who don’t really care, and edge-cases who are quite fond of you but have just gotten into a tricky situation. Perhaps spend just a little more time looking after the latter. They’ll thank you for it.

links for 07 February 2007 – User Research as Commodity

links for 31 January 2008 – Cool Wii Hacking